Al Smith Sr., photographer, historian
Al Smith Jr. recalls that as a youngster, he'd spend long hours with his dad, Al Smith Sr., in the basement darkroom of their Central District...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Al Smith Jr. recalls that as a youngster, he'd spend long hours with his dad, Al Smith Sr., in the basement darkroom of their Central District home, developing black-and-white prints from shots his father had captured around town.
The senior Smith didn't consider himself a professional photographer. Neither did he figure himself a consummate local historian. He just loved taking pictures. And he loved his subjects, many of them the patrons of Seattle's early nightclub scene.
Over decades as a shutterbug, the elder Mr. Smith amassed tens of thousands of prints and negatives, which he stashed in drawers and cabinets and grocery bags in his basement. Along the way, his prints also found a home in Seattle's Museum of History & Industry, in the recently opened Northwest African American Museum and in a traveling exhibit that chronicles Seattle's Jackson Street night scene from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Mr. Smith, who single-handedly documented African-American community life here for a half-century, died last Thursday, Aug. 28. He was 92.
"There was always a camera around his neck," said his son. "He would take pictures of anything and everything."
Mr. Smith, who took up photography as a hobby as a preteen, was a familiar figure in the local nightclub scene, snapping shots of performers and patrons. When big bands came through Seattle, Mr. Smith was there. There was Duke Ellington at the piano during a Seattle performance in 1947, and Cab Calloway at the mike.
Then, too, there were the club patrons. He'd make prints from his negatives, then return to the club the next week and sell them for 50 cents each, said his son, a retired University of Washington education professor.
He shot birthday parties and family reunions, pickup basketball games and boxing matches, and more weddings than he could count. His work has been on posters for concerts and on the cover of a local magazine.
"There wasn't a major event or happening in the African-American community that Al wasn't chronicling," said former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, a longtime family friend. "He was that quiet mind's eye who gave us a lens to look at ourselves."
Howard Giske, the Museum of History & Industry's photo curator, saw Mr. Smith as a photographic craftsman. "He really knew all aspects of the craft," he said. Mr. Smith was a MOHAI volunteer for more than a decade, helping the museum preserve its vintage-photo collection of Seattle history.
"He was an amazing artist, and the friendliest man I ever met," said Giske. Mr. Smith's photos were featured in two MOHAI exhibits, in 1987 and in 1993.
Four of his prints also are in the Northwest African American Museum's Journey Gallery, in an installation titled "After Hours." Those prints are "some of the most powerful and special pictures we have in the entire exhibit," said Brian J. Carter, the museum's deputy director.
"His sense of the moment and his sense of composition were just extraordinary," said Paul de Barros, a local writer and Times staff reporter. More than a half-dozen of his photos are included in de Barros' 1993 book, "Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle."
Some of his early Seattle jazz photos also hang on the walls of the Starbucks store at 23rd Avenue and South Jackson Street, and some, framed by Mr. Smith himself, in a room at the Central Area Senior Center.
Mr. Smith attended Immaculate Conception Grade School, and according to his son, was the first African American to attend Seattle's O'Dea High School. He was a welder in the Bremerton naval shipyards during World War II. He had been a merchant marine, a city employee and a postal carrier for three decades.
"His weekend job was snapping pictures," said his son. On the backs of prints he stamped his familiar mark: "Al Smith on the spot."
Besides his son, of Seattle, Mr. Smith is survived by a daughter, Cheryl Smith, also Seattle; a foster daughter, Omenka Nnadi of Detroit; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His wife, Isabelle, died last April.
A memorial Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception Church, 820 18th Ave., Mr. Smith's lifelong parish. A private family burial will be on Friday.
Remembrances are suggested to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, Ala., 36104.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 6:15 AM
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